It's a Dirty Job ...
New arts tsar Vincent Kitch rolls up his sleeves to give Austin arts funding a clean start
Hercules had it easy. When the Greek hero was cleaning out those filthy old stables of King Augeas, he may have had to contend with 30 years' worth of deposits left by a few thousand oxen, but at least it was only physical shit. And he had the strength of a demigod to get the job done.
Vincent Kitch, Austin's first official arts tsar, is tackling a task almost as mythic in proportion overhauling the city's arts funding program, which is encrusted with at least two decades of conflicts and controversies but the muck he's dealing with is considerably harder to scour away, so much of it being that intangible emotional kind: the discontent, antagonism, and ill will among the artists, staff, commissioners, panelists, and others who have taken part in the process through the years. Even though he has only the strength of a mortal, Kitch has undertaken the cleaning up of the Cultural Contracts Program, spending the past five months his first five on the job developing a different, less contentious, more supportive way for the city to fund artists.
This week, Kitch presents to City Council the fruits of his labors, a new set of arts funding program guidelines, but his job is far from done. This is only the first of his Herculean labors on the Austin cultural scene; next he'll have to oversee the implementation of the guidelines, then find ways of linking the nonprofit and commercial arts industries and promoting the arts throughout the city and beyond, and on, and on ... But it may be the most significant for what it says about his ability to relate to this arts community and to rebuild trust within it.
Arts tsar, is, of course, not Kitch's true job title. It's a tag coined by a writer who found "cultural arts program manager" a little wordy and bureaucratically sterile to convey the full flavor of the position. After all, the holder of this job is supposed to be, in the city's words, the "creative, energetic, and innovative leader" who will coordinate support and advocacy for all of Austin's performing arts, visual arts, music, film, and interactive communities; who will invent new ways to get behind and boost Austin's creative vitality; who will beat the drum for the arts throughout the private and public sectors; and who will set the tone for the way all cultural activity is viewed here. For the visionary who is at long last to realize the potential of Austin as a capital of the creative class, you want a title with a little zing to it.
Imperial Ruler or Proletariat?
If there's anything unfortunate about the term, it's that it suggests someone with airs, an aloof aristocrat whose aesthetic tastes run toward minuets, harpsichords, and Old Masters. And that goes against the grain of boots-off, beer-in-hand bohemian Austin. Kitch can dress the part of the arts tsar, as he showed with his appearance as a finalist for the job: elegant suit, crisply pressed shirt, French cuffs.
But the Illinois native and trained trombonist appears more at home in shirt sleeves, and, judging from his first five months in the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, he spends a lot of time with those sleeves rolled up. His desk always seems to have some draft on it, some revision or other of the funding guidelines, and he's careful to check whether it's the latest copy. No conversation goes longer than 10 minutes without an interruption from the telephone. He started out putting in 15-hour days, beginning his workday at 5:30am. Now that he's closing in on the completion of the draft guidelines, he won't come in until 7am. He shrugs off any compliment about his work ethic. That's his job. It's what he's here for.
That persistence has served Kitch well in these first months. When he arrived in November fresh from his five-year stint as education and capital improvements programs coordinator for the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs the city was 2½ years into a monumental effort by the arts community to redefine the way the city allocates cultural funding. (See "Cultural Arts Program: A Timeline for Controversy and Reform") Every inequity, every oversight, every slight, was being dredged up and made the basis for some new guideline in the funding process: established institutions vs. emerging companies, cultural sensitivity, fellowships for individual artists, conflicts of interest, equitable funding for minority artists, site visits, panelists' familiarity with the applicants' work, etc., etc., etc. Kitch was expected to deliver a new process in time for it to be implemented in 2004, but the document he was handed included everything that anyone ever thought needed to be changed, collected in one overstuffed package by the Dabney & Associates consulting firm over about 15 months.
Picking Up the Shovel
"The material was all over the map," says Kitch. "The consultants had done drafts of proposed programs, and the staff had worked with them on that, and there was all of the public input. I ended up with everything [rolled] into one ball of wax. The program structures that we're proposing now were in there, but the scope that they covered was so broad that it was unmanageable. For instance, originally it was proposing operational support for organizations that had a $5,000 or $10,000 annual budget. That was one of those things that immediately fell out. I said, 'We can't do unrestricted funding to an organization that has a $10,000 budget. That's just not fiscally responsible. That would not be good for the city to be in that business.'"
Just to get a handle on what he was up against, Kitch launched a quick attack on the behemoth with a pen. "First, I just went through it with a red marker and circled things and put questions and said, 'We can't do this,' and, 'We should do this,' based on my professional background," he says. "There were six major programs proposed in that document. We only have bed-tax money at this point. We don't have another source [of revenue]. We don't have a fundraising plan. So we had to look at what we could realistically do and what we couldn't do. One of the big concerns in the community had been competition levels because it was only discipline based, so you had the smallest organization competing against the largest. If the arts community wants operational support for the large [organizations], we can do that. We said, 'OK, we'll let the larger institutions have an operational support category, and it can be a little more unrestricted, a little more general operating, and then we'll have a project-based category for the smaller organizations and one for even smaller organizations yet.
"The charge [from the city] was: They wanted a new program. They handed me this document that was a structure of funding programs. It had been developed after a year and a half of public input, so there was very little I felt I could do to make wholesale change on that; it was more about how can we make this into something that functions."
At the same time he was whittling away at what the public had already said, Kitch was also gathering more public input. Given the task of crafting a fair, functional funding mechanism, he wanted to hear the rationale for the new guidelines from the people who had proposed them. But the conversations had a double benefit, reinforcing the idea that this was a new day, that this process which had caused so much antagonism was changing. Now, someone at the city was listening, really listening.
A Soft Answer
"The whole time I've been here, I've really tried to make myself open to the community," Kitch says. "I felt really welcomed by the community. I felt like they were glad I was here, so I thought it was important that they be able to tell me anything that was on their minds. I made it very clear that I would talk to anybody who wanted to talk to me directly, because we don't have another staff person who's going to manage this program. I'm the person. People will deal directly with me. And I think that's what was needed."
However, the arts tsar is not to be confused with Santa. Just because the city has hired an ally and advocate for local artists doesn't mean they get everything they want. "I've tried to be very up front with people, you know: 'This is going to change. Not everyone is going to like it. I can't solve all your problems. I'm going to try and set up a fair system. In the end, you may get funded. You may get less. You may not get any [funding]. But you'll know why. And it won't be because of some hidden agenda. It'll be all right there in front of you.'"
Kitch delivers the promise without attitude or boast, in a soft-spoken, straightforward, that's-just-the-way-it-is style that comes across as, well, trustworthy. It's a manner that you might associate more readily with a diplomat or even a hostage negotiator, but that doesn't make it any less appropriate or useful for an arts tsar. In fact, it might be especially helpful for an arts tsar in Austin, where cultural campaigns have been fought long and hard and left many on all sides wounded and bitter. Such calm directness can allow Kitch to be honest without seeming threatening, decisive without appearing to play favorites.
It's a style that has played well so far, if Kitch's reception at the Cultural Funding Program public forum in March is any indication. He was repeatedly thanked for his efforts in reforming the funding process by applicants who took the microphone. The arts community looks to be genuinely appreciative of Kitch at this point or at least, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, the arts community could shift right back into attack formation any minute and level their bayonets at the arts tsar. The folks who've been involved in the cultural contracts program are a wary bunch; they've been burned before, you see. They're willing to support reform, but in many cases they're more interested in ensuring that their welfare is protected in case something goes wrong and since something almost always has before, they're pretty sure it will this time, too.
How Clean and for How Long?
Kitch has picked up on this. In talking to people about the new guidelines, he says he "was struck by how many people wanted clarifications. Every time I went somewhere, they said, 'Define that, and give some measurement.' I said, 'You don't want me to define everything, because the more pigeonholes I create, the less accessible [the program] is. The more things that are written in stone, the harder it is for people to fit that niche.' People would say, 'Organizations who own or manage facilities should get points because we are important to the community.' I'd say, 'Yes, you are, and you will probably gain points by being able to present that in your narrative. But I could no more give you special points than I could give them to someone who would say individual artists should get special points or dance groups should get special points.' My whole approach to this is not to create niches. The consideration we put in place for one group is a barrier to another group."
And the trick here has always been getting the one group to care about that other group. As in so much of Austin politics, the cultural arts program is mostly a turf war, with every individual organization fighting tooth and nail to preserve whatever patch of grass it claims as its own. If that were not the case, then we would never have had applicants doing end runs around the Arts Commission and getting their council members to protect their interests. The new guidelines are supposed to be so fair and open as to preclude that kind of abuse, but Kitch could get this process clean enough to eat off of, and it won't matter a damn if the applicants don't respect the rules.
Trust is key. Much of what led to the collapse of the old process was a sense that it could not be trusted by anyone on any level: applicants, panelists, commissioners, council. Now, the city has elected to try and restore that trust and so has invested in this lone individual to effect change. It isn't so much that this person will transform the process all by himself but that he stands at the point where all the lines for change cross. He's the one who everyone involved in the reformed process will make contact with; therefore, if trust is what needed, then he's the person it is essential that everyone trust. This week at council, the artists and all citizens of Austin will be able to see how well he's earned their trust. If you think he's earned it, let him continue to do the job he was hired to do. If you think he hasn't, well, go see him. His door is always open.